Susan Abulhawa

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Susan Abulhawa
Susan Abulhawa.jpg
Susan Abulhawa in 2010
Born (1970-06-03) June 3, 1970 (age 46)
Occupation Author, activist
Nationality Palestinian American
Notable works Mornings in Jenin

Susan Abulhawa (Arabic: سوزان أبو الهوى‎‎, born June 3, 1970) is a Palestinian American writer and human rights activist. She is the author of a bestselling novel, Mornings in Jenin (2010) and the founder of a non-governmental organization, Playgrounds for Palestine.[1] She lives in Yardley, Pennsylvania.[2] Her second novel, The Blue Between Sky And Water, was sold in 19 languages before its release. It was published in the UK on June 4, 2015, and will be published in the US on September 1, 2015.

Early life and education[edit]

Abulhawa's parents, born in At-Tur in Jerusalem, were refugees of the 1967 war. Her father, according to one account, “was expelled at gunpoint; her mother, who was studying in Germany at the time, was unable to return and the couple reunited in Jordan before moving to Kuwait, where Abulhawa was born in 1970.[3]” Since her parents did not remain together for long, and the family was dismantled following the war, Susan was sent to live with an uncle in the U.S., where she stayed until she was five years old. She was then “passed between various family members in Kuwait and Jordan; at 10, she was taken to Jerusalem but ended up in an orphanage.” At age 13, she was sent to Charlotte, North Carolina, where she was a foster child. She has been in the US since. She majored in Biology in college and attended USC School of Medicine as a graduate student in the Department of Biomedical Science, where she completed a master's degree in Neuroscience.

She later turned to journalism and fiction. She has contributed to several anthologies and has been published in major and minor US and international newspapers and other periodicals. Mornings in Jenin (originally published in 2006 as The Scar of David) was her debut novel.[4][5] It is an international bestseller, published in at least 26 languages. In 2013, Abulhawa published a collection of poetry entitled "My Voice Sought The Wind" and it has been announced that she completed and sold her second novel manuscript.

Abulhawa is the founder of Playgrounds for Palestine, [6] an NGO that advocates for Palestinian children by building playgrounds in Palestine and UN refugee camps in Lebanon. The first playground was erected in early 2002.[7]


In 2000, then, Abulhawa traveled to Palestine, where, according to a 2010 profile, “listening to the echo of her childhood on the slopes of the Mount of Olives and cradling the young daughter who had finally given her purpose,...Abulhawa set her life on its indeterminable course.” That course was one “of political activism, of vocally opposing Israeli settlements on Palestinian territory and campaigning to provide playgrounds for Palestinian children.” Abulhawa herself has described her return to Palestine as a reawakening, saying that “when I heard the adhan for the first time and realized how much I'd missed it, I broke down in tears.”

In 2001, Abulhawa set up Playgrounds for Palestine, starting off with donated slides and swings for a playground in Bethlehem. She had also begun to write op-eds for newspapers. She is now heavily involved in the campaign for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions and as a speaker for Al Awda, the Right to Return coalition.[2]

Playgrounds for Palestine[edit]

Abulhawa has called Playgrounds for Palestine, which she founded in 2001, “a simple project where we raise money in the US and around the world, which then we use to build playgrounds for Palestinian children in various parts of Palestine and the refugee camps. We have 20 playgrounds.” It is a small, all-volunteer group.[8] Its mission statement describes it as “Upholding the right to play by building creative playspaces for Palestinian children in Palestine and in countries with Palestinian refugees.” Playground equipment is purchased abroad, then shipped and assembled locally, usually on donated land. The playgrounds are thereafter owned and maintained by local NGOs or municipalities. The organization ANERA (American Near East Refugee Aid) is heavily involved in various phases of the operation.[9]

As of 2015, Playgrounds for Palestine had established thirty two playgrounds in Palestine, as well as two Lebanon refugee camps and one in Syria.


Abulhawa is signatory to the boycott campaign against Israel, including the cultural boycott. She gave the keynote address at the first campus BDS conference at the University of Pennsylvania.

Abulhawa sees the BDS movement, according to a 2012 profile, “as one of the most effective ways to promote Palestinian rights and achieve justice against Israel’s ongoing ethnic cleansing.” Abulhawa told an interviewer, “Until now, most Palestinian resistance has been either armed struggle or non-violent, basically passive means....Israel is comfortable in dealing with this as long as it is contained in their purview. Even sometimes, it is happy for armed actions because this reinforces the image they want to project of Palestinians as violent and hateful.” BDS, however, “opens the window on what Israel is doing; it shows the world the apartheid system they have built in Palestine. They have no defence against this exposure.”[10]

Mornings in Jenin[edit]

Abulhawa, who at the time was working for a drug company, visited Jenin as an international observer[8] in the aftermath of the 2002 Israeli attack on a refugee camp there. The visit “transformed” Abulhawa, she later said. “You grow up as a Palestinian knowing about these massacres and the wars and the injustice but it was completely different to be there.”[2]

“What I saw in Jenin was shocking at so many levels,” she later said, “but it was also quite humbling to watch how the people came together and shared what little they had. So when I left there, I really wanted to tell their story because I knew nobody was going to talk about it.” Returning to the U.S., she had trouble reconciling the concerns of her coworkers at the drug company with the travails of the people of Jenin. “They were two parts of my life and it was suffocating. A few months later I was laid off and it was probably the best thing that happened to me.”[8]

The result was a novel, Mornings in Jenin, which was published in 2010. It has been described as “a poignant, lyrical tale tracing four generations of the Abulheja family as they suffer loss after loss - first, with the kidnapping of their son Ismael in the 1948 Naqba by an Israeli soldier and then through their violent expulsion from their village near Haifa.” The novel follows the family through “successive horrors inflicted during the 1967 war, the siege of Lebanon and slaughters in Jenin, Sabra and Shatila, the devastation and agonies wreaked on ordinary Palestinians are depicted through the struggles of the book's protagonist Amal, whose brother Ismael is raised as the Arab-hating David.”

The novel, published by Bloomsbury, has been translated into Arabic by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing.[2] It has also been translated into at least two dozen other languages and has become an international bestseller.[8]

“In the Palestinian narrative,” she has said apropos of the book's story, “there are no two sides. There are no two sides to this conflict in the same way that there were no two sides to the Holocaust. There were no two sides to apartheid. There are no two sides to slavery. You have a nuclear power that is pitted against principally an unarmed civilian population. This is not a matter of sides.”[8]

The French author and philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy called Mornings in Jenin “a concentration of anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish clichés masquerading as fiction.”[11] Abulhawa responded by dismissing Levy as a “French pop star of philosophy and intellectual elitism” and accusing him of “name-calling”: “He simply slaps on the word 'anti-Semitism' to discredit any negative portrayal of Israel.... Mr. Levy accuses us of 'demonizing Israel', when in fact, all we do is pull back the curtain, however slightly, to show a dark truth he wishes to keep hidden. I suspect that Mr Levy feels, as most Jewish supporters of Israel do, that he is more entitled to my grandfather's farms than I am. After all, that is really the foundation of Israel, isn't it?”[12]

Filmworks Dubai bought the film rights to Mornings in Jenin and plans to begin production in late 2013. Anna Soler-Pont, head of the Pontas agency, which sold the film rights to the novel, said, “This is going to be a special project. There aren’t any epic films on Palestine yet.”[13]

Other writings[edit]

In an April 2012 article, Abulhawa complained that “no matter what greatness you’ve achieved in your life or what gifts you’ve given to the rest of humanity, if you criticize Israel, you must expect to become persona non grata.” She expressed gratitude that “brave people” such as Alice Walker, Henning Mankell, and others “are willing to take significant risks for the rest of humanity.” She especially singled out Günter Grass, who had recently “dared to suggest glaringly obvious truths: that Israel has a robust nuclear program and its hinted intention to attack Iran is a threat to world stability.” She protested that Germany, by supporting Israel, “is not the one paying for its sins. We, the Palestinians, are.”

Israel, she told readers, “is a nuclear power with the most advanced death machines ever known to man, which it unleashes frequently against a principally unarmed civilian population that dares to demand freedom. It is a country that is currently in violation of hundreds of UN resolutions and nearly every tenet of international law. It is a country that has been condemned by every human rights organization that has ever investigated the situation on the ground there.” While acknowledging that “the Jewish Holocaust” needs to be remembered, she noted that there had also been holocausts of Armenians, Serbs, Rwandans, Native Americans,” and “the holocaust of slavery,” not to mention “Deir Yassin, Sabra and Shatila, Qibya and the many other atrocities Israel has committed against Palestinians.”[14]

In a May 2012 article, she condemned the United Methodist Church for not passing “a resolution to divest from three major beneficiaries of the most incendiary human rights abuses and colonial crimes of our time,” namely Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola. She called the UMC's action “an utter disgrace, a blight on the church of the same magnitude as that which comes from the institutional failure to speak up for Jews in the late 1930s.” While “Palestinians may be starving, languishing and bleeding,” she wrote, “Israel and its backers are rotting at their core, because that’s what racism, self-interest at all costs, and cowardice does to the soul.”[15]

In a June 2013 article, Abulhawa declared “the essential blackness of the Palestinian struggle” and the need for “alliances among oppressed peoples.” She cited a fellow activist as saying that “when we speak of engaging 'the world,' what we mean is Europe and the US, because someone convinced us somewhere along the line that these were the only places that mattered,” even though these were “the same nations that facilitated and cheered on the destruction of our society.” The solution, Abulhawa argued, is to “reorient the Palestinian struggle to align with indigenous struggles — struggles of the marginalized and voiceless — which I consider to be spiritually and politically black because there is no equivalent to the savagery inflicted on the black body over centuries by white supremacy.” She went on to quote from Frantz Fanon and Edward Said and to celebrate the solidarity shown to Palestinians by people like Angela Davis, Alice Walker, and Cynthia McKinney. And she concluded that “the United States and the European Union are not our friends. They have never been our friends.”[16]

She has written on Twitter that “gratuitous violence runs through Israeli society.” In one tweet she asked: “How many times must we become refugees? Why? So every American and European Jew can have dual citizenship?” In another she made this claim: “Israeli commanders to their soldiers: champagne for a dead Palestinian, soda for a wounded one.” In yet another she called on her Twitter followers to “Tell Alicia Keys to boycott Apartheid Israel.”[17]

Other professional activities[edit]

In addition to her fiction writing and activism, Abulhawa continues to do “medical writing for journals and drug companies.”[10]

Abulhawa lectures frequently. Among her themes, to use her own words, are that Palestinians (Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and other), are the rightful “natives of the Holy Land”; that “Israel is a country that was founded by Europeans who came to Palestine” and “formed terrorist gangs who set about a systematic ethnic cleansing of the native Palestinians”; that “Israel has employed every imperialistic tactic to subjugate, humiliate, break, and expel an entire nation of principally unarmed civilians because of their religion is not a right”; that “the two-state solution was and remains an instrument to circumvent the basic human rights of Palestinians in order to accommodate Israel’s desire to be Jewish” and that the only fair solution is “a single democratic state, with liberty and justice for all, regardless of religion.”

She compares Israel to apartheid South Africa, but adds that “not in their cruelest hour did the Apartheid regime wreak such wanton murder and destruction....Israel cuts off the movement of food, medicine and other basic goods to the Gaza strip, causing massive malnutrition, economic collapse and misery. Israel rains death from the skies on an already battered and starved Gaza, murdering over 3000 human beings and maiming thousands more in a single month.” Israel, she says, “ghettoized Gaza and turned it into an open air prison – a concentration camp of civilians with no way to earn a living, no way to defend themselves and no place to run from the slaughter bombarding them from air, land, and sea. Half of Gazan children under 12 have lost their 'will to live.' Can anyone fathom the kind of oppression that leads small children en masse to lose their will to live?”[18]

In 2013, Abulhawa declined an invitation from Al Jazeera to participate in a discussion about the Israel-Palestine issue, particularly the Nakba, involving herself and several Israelis, including some who were highly critical of Israeli policy. Telling the Al Jazeera producer that “it frankly pains me that you would conceive of such a forum,” she stated flatly that she would not take part in “any form of 'conversation' with Israelis about the Nakba,” although she would agree to appear on the air following such a conversation in order to discuss its contents with an interviewer. “Imagine,” she wrote, “Germany never acknowledged the Jewish holocaust. Imagine, we are living in an era where Jews are still fighting for basic recognition of their pain. Then imagine that on the day in which Jews engage in solemn remembrance of their greatest collective wound, television shows choose to feature German sons and daughters of Nazis in a discussion expressing differing views on whether or not and/or how Germany should deal with the memory of the genocide their country committed. And imagine, of course, there is a token Jew 'to balance out' such an ill-timed and inappropriate public conversation.”[19]



  • The Leeway Foundation Edna Andrade award for fiction and creative non-fiction
  • Best Books Award for Historic Fiction
  • MEMO Palestine Book Award
  • Barbara Deming Memorial Fund Award


  1. ^ "Susan Abulhawa". Al Jazeera. 
  2. ^ a b c d Yaqoob, Tahira (Apr 26, 2012). "Arab-American novelist fights for justice in Palestine". The National. 
  3. ^ this is a contradiction with the first sentence : "born in Jebel al Tur in Jerusalem" ; according to other sources (her french editors), she was born in 1967 ...
  4. ^ "Susan Abulhawa". Arab World Books. Retrieved 13 October 2009. 
  5. ^ a b c Bloomsbury Biography
  6. ^ Playgrounds for Palestine
  7. ^ Adams, John (March 2003), "Playgrounds for Palestine Brings Playground for Peace" (PDF), Today's Playground, retrieved 13 October 2009 
  8. ^ a b c d e Badih, Samia (May 4, 2012). "Palestine on Her Mind". Gulf News. 
  9. ^ "About us". Playgrounds for Palestine. 
  10. ^ a b Bland, Sally (Mar 27, 2012). "Susan Abulhawa: Writing for Palestine". The Jordan Times. 
  11. ^ Levy, Bernard-Henri (Dec 3, 2010). "The Antisemitism to Come". Huffington Post. 
  12. ^ Abulhawa, Susan (Dec 22, 2010). "The Antisemitism to Come? Hardly". Huffington Post. 
  13. ^ Evans, Chris (Nov 17, 2011). "Filmworks Dubai Takes Rights to Best-Selling Novel Mornings in Jenin". Screen Daily. 
  14. ^ "Why are Palestinians paying for Germany's sins?". Electronic Intifada. 
  15. ^ Abulhawa, Susan (May 4, 2012). "United Methodist Churchs Shameful Failure to Divest from Injustice". Electronic Intifada. 
  16. ^ Abulhawa, Susan (Jun 11, 2013). "The Palestinian struggle is a black struggle". Electronic Intifada. 
  17. ^ "susan abulhawa". Twitter. 
  18. ^ Abulhawa, Susan. "Palestinians Will Never Forget". Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. American Educational Trust. Retrieved 17 August 2015. 
  19. ^ Weiss, Philip (May 19, 2013). "Abulhawa declines to balance out several Israelis in Al Jazeera forum on Nakba". Mondoweiss. 
  20. ^ "Seeking Palestine: New Palestinian Writing on Exile and Home". 
  21. ^ "My Voice Sought the Wind". 

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